Believe it or not, while it seems like an eternity has passed since the first presidential debate, it was actually only eight days ago. After the lights went down on that frenetic affair—which was marked by President Donald Trump’s raging abandonment of anything resembling decorum, a spectacle so grotesque that it left moderator Chris Wallace defeated and ashamed—you might have looked toward Wednesday night’s vice presidential debate as a respite of sorts. Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris are, after all, comparatively conventional politicians who fit within a narrow band of political practices, neither of them prone to giving themselves over to Trump’s wild emotional heights. Their face-off promised something blissfully and recognizably ordinary: a throwback to the Before Times.
Of course, a lot happened in the days that followed the first debate between Trump and Joe Biden, which inevitably colored Wednesday night’s proceedings. Let’s recap: The president and seemingly his entire inner circle contracted Covid-19, and the debate was suspected of being one of the places where the superspreading took place. The president spent a few hours at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, grew bored almost immediately, potentially exposed members of his Secret Service retinue to the disease while joyriding around the medical campus, got more bored still, abandoned Walter Reed to demonstrate the triumph of his will on the White House balcony by gasping for breath in alarming fashion, and then decamped for his residence, leaving the media to contemplate just how far into the post-post-WTF era we may have strayed.
In the clearest sign that things had only proceeded in a cockeyed direction since the last debate, Pence and Harris were arranged behind a set of hotly debated Plexiglass fortifications, a wan piece of hygiene theater that nevertheless managed to consume a considerable amount of the media’s time this week. It’s not clear that their addition contributed much to anyone’s safety, but they did pay tribute to our New Normal—or if you prefer, the No Normal. If Harris and Pence never quite succeeded in delivering an ordinary, pre-Covid debate experience, it wasn’t for want of trying: For long portions of their face-off, they fell into comfortable rhythms and familiar rhetorical patterns.
Against these strange days, however, they never had a chance. From the outset, moderator Susan Page asserted that “coronavirus is not under control.” Harris leaped at the gilt-edged offering, asserting that the “American people have witnessed the greatest failure of any presidential administration in our history.” She added, “They knew what was happening, and they didn’t tell you. They knew, and they covered it up.”
The matter of the administration’s response is a particularly bad beat for Pence, as he is nominally the head of Trump’s coronavirus task force. With the United States proving to be exceptionally incompetent among its peers on the world stage at fighting off the pandemic, it’s a significant cross for Pence to bear. He bore it, however imperfectly, by simply insisting that the world of hurt America has spent the last year living within was a figment of our imagination. In Pence’s telling, Trump’s early decisions bought valuable time to mobilize the nation and save hundreds of thousands of lives. Harris rather capably cut Pence’s trip to cloud-cuckoo-land short by reminding viewers of the depths of America’s tragedy—more than 210,000 largely unmourned dead—throwing in a reminder that Trump told Washington scribbler Bob Woodward that he’d wanted to play down the pandemic’s seriousness. “I still like playing it down,” he told Woodward, “because I don’t want to create a panic.”
It was perhaps a stroke of luck for Pence that when the conversation turned to the White House’s announcement of Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination—which is now broadly suspected of being the original superspreader event that has gripped Trump’s inner circle and a good portion of the Republican Party—Page lingered on the subject only briefly, a puzzling decision given that the story has consumed the political press over the past few days. You could tell that Harris had prepared to make a case out of the matter, as she lambasted Pence for setting a poor example and accused him of withholding the truth. Pence didn’t help his cause by pretending that the Barrett event was exclusively outdoors—pictures captured various revelers inside, as well.
Once the debate had cleared itself of the thorny matter of our unrelenting public health crisis, Harris and Pence were largely able to offer the sort of vice presidential debate that one might have encountered in the pre-Trump era. Harris’s rhetorical style stands apart from typical politicians’: Where they declaim, she finds a way to affect some level of conversational intimacy. She lathers her biggest barbs with a folksy honey; her most savage indictments can seem awfully alluring for the so-accused.
Pence’s greatest debate strength, which was probably well deployed against Harris, is to simply be drably indifferent to his opponent’s accusations. He survives these arguments unsinged by never acknowledging them in the first place. It’s hard to feel the satisfaction of pricking him when he refuses to notice the pain you’ve inflicted. Pence knows that the trick to winning a debate isn’t “being right,” it’s not caring about being wrong.
Both debaters might rue some missed opportunities. Pence seemed to only gently suggest that Harris represented something radical in the bloodstream of the Democratic Party. He endeavored to depict Harris as an avatar of beyond-the-pale change but never went far enough to truly paint her as some sort of “other.” For her part, Harris showed tremendous dedication to the man at the top of the ticket but didn’t find a lot of ways to position herself as the future face of the Democratic Party, to whom the spoils of the Obama-Biden agenda might one day be entrusted.
But who has time for such frippery? Let’s recall where America is at the moment: There is a nonzero chance that Harris will leave the University of Utah infected with a deadly disease and an equally nonzero chance that Mike Pence will have been the proximate cause of this infection. In a few short days, we may learn that another score, connected with the White House or the campaign trail, have become afflicted with Covid-19. There may be no more presidential debates. Someone might die. It’s hard to imagine that anyone will look back on this vice presidential debate as worth risking one’s life over.